Nearly eight years after a steam explosion in downtown Washington killed two men, several parties who were sued in connection with the blast continue to point the finger at one another - and at one of the victims - over who was to blame.
Joseph Hudert and Francis Stotmeister were employees of companies contracted through the U.S. General Services Administration to work on steam and water systems under 17th Street Northwest, which connected to the New Executive Office Building. Both were killed on April 23, 2004, after a steam pipe ruptured.
Hudert and Stotmeister's families filed separate wrongful death lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that involved the federal government, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority and a host of private contractors and subcontractors in connection with the incident. Until recently, the defendants focused much of their efforts on pinning any future liability on one another.
Hudert's family, which had sued for more than $20 million, settled with the defendants for undisclosed amounts in November, but the Stotmeister family's $30 million case has pressed on. The parties met this morning before U.S. District Senior Judge Thomas Hogan to present arguments on summary judgment and other pending motions.
An attorney for the Stotmeister family, William Lightfoot of Washington’s Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot, told Hogan that his client had reached settlement agreements with the federal government, D.C. Water and three of the private defendants – Jessup, Md.-based Cherry Hill Construction Inc., Rockville, Md.-based Grunley-Walsh Joint Venture LLC, and McLean, Va.-based Alion Science and Technology Group.
Motions for summary judgment filed by two other private companies – Gaithersburg, Md.-based M&M Welding & Fabricators Inc. and Philadelphia-based Day & Zimmerman Services – are still pending. M&M and Day & Zimmerman are also pursuing motions to recover damages they may have to pay from the federal government.
Thomas Ryan of McCarthy Wilson in Rockville, an attorney for M&M, argued for summary judgment on behalf of his client and Day & Zimmerman. He said there was clear evidence that Stotmeister, a construction superintendant for Grunley-Walsh, failed to follow procedures for operating the steam pipe valves on the day of the explosion. Ryan said Stotmeister’s supervisor had reason to assume Stotmeister was familiar enough with the system to know proper protocol; he was known as “the steam guy.”
Koonz partner Marc Fiedler replied that the evidence showed that any actions Stotmeister took to operate the steam pipe valves were at the behest of his supervisor. Fiedler said summary judgment would be inappropriate because several important facts were still in dispute.
Theodore Segletes III of Marks, O’Neill, O’Brien & Courtney in Wilmington, Del., argued on behalf of Day & Zimmerman, which had a contract with the federal government to inspect the pipes at issue. Day & Zimmerman moved to hold the federal government responsible for any damages it may owe, along with attorney fees and other costs associated with defending the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Simon argued today that the government’s contract with Day & Zimmerman indemnified the government against such liability, and that the government couldn’t act as the company’s third-party insurance provider. Simon also said that the government wasn’t responsible for any problems with the pipes, because it was Day & Zimmerman’s responsibility to inspect and report on their condition.
M&M has also moved to have the government share in any liability.
Hogan urged the parties today to continue any settlement talks, but said he planned to rule on the remaining motions by tomorrow.